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But he’s not resigning, and protesters are not going home
THE MAN who does not speak finally listened. On March 11th Algeria’s president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, announced that he would not run for a fifth term. That has been the demand of tens of thousands of protesters over the past three weeks. Mr Bouteflika, 82, has ruled for 20 years. A stroke in 2013 left him confined to a wheelchair and barely able to speak. Yet he was to be the only real candidate in an election on April 18th. With him out of the race, the vote has been postponed. In a letter released by state media, he—or his coterie—acknowledged his health problems and promised to leave “a new republic…in the hands of the new generations of Algerians”.
Not right away, though. The letter proposed a transitional period, with a national convention to draft a new constitution that would be put to a public vote. Elections will follow. The timing of all this is vague, and Mr Bouteflika will preside over a technocratic government until the election. There is talk of Lakhdar Brahimi, a veteran diplomat, heading the constitutional effort.
Joy at the announcement soon turned to doubt. Mr Brahimi is close to the president and, at 85, is even older than him. The unpopular prime minister has resigned, but his replacement and his new deputy are both former ministers and loyalists. “We demand a radical change of the system, not a change of puppets,” read one banner hoisted in the street. Protests have continued. Algerians had hoped to be rid of both the invalid president and the clique of generals and businessmen that runs the country. Instead, le pouvoir (the power), as the latter is known, seems to be stalling for time to anoint a successor.
Decades ago the army called the shots. It stepped into politics in 1992 by cancelling Algeria’s first (and only) free election after Islamists were poised to win. That touched off a decade-long civil war that killed 200,000 people. But the army’s influence has waned during Mr Bouteflika’s rule. He and his brother, Said, strengthened the presidency at its expense, sacking generals seen as insufficiently loyal. The army chief, Ahmed Gaid Salah, made a point of appearing on television with Mr Bouteflika after his announcement.
A new economic elite has gained strength. The best-known businessman is Ali Haddad, a construction magnate who grew rich off state contracts and now heads the Business Leaders Forum (FCE), a powerful federation. Algeria is one of the largest energy producers in Africa and a key supplier of natural gas to Europe. Mr Bouteflika doled out billions of dollars in oil-and-gas revenue to allies, ostensibly for infrastructure projects. A good bit of it disappeared. An oft-cited example is the A1, a 750-mile highway. It took more than a decade to finish and cost as much as $15bn, making it one of the most expensive roads in the world. Several officials who worked on the project were jailed for corruption.
Yet big business is divided. Executives compete for rents in a state-dominated economy. Many dislike Mr Haddad. Earlier this year Mohamed Benamor, the boss of a food conglomerate, was rumoured to have met an ex-general and presidential hopeful called Ali Ghediri. After the protests began, Mr Benamor and other businessmen quit the FCE and criticised Mr Bouteflika’s re-election bid.
With so many competing interests, le pouvoir could not agree on a successor. It had hoped to find one during Mr Bouteflika’s languid fifth term—until the protests caught it unprepared. They grew to include not only frustrated young people but also vital functionaries, such as judges, who refused to supervise the election, and employees of state energy firms, who went on strike. The regime hopes to reassert some control by managing the transition and national convention.
The protesters may not oblige. “Leave means leave” has become a popular slogan on social media. The police have so far been restrained, for fear of exacerbating the unrest. But things could get out of hand. Private disagreements between Mr Bouteflika’s allies may spill into public; Gulf states may start competing for influence in Algeria, as they already do in Tunisia and Libya. The days ahead will be uncertain. After decades of stagnant leadership, though, many Algerians will find that refreshing.